THIRTY-seven-year-old Gary Butte is certainly painting a bright and artistic future one meticulous brushstroke at a time. He has been painting for over 20 years and has declared emphatically that he will die before his love for painting life’s images on canvas ever does.
Butte’s earliest influence in art stems from his father buying paintings and hanging them in the family home. He said he was particularly impressed with two of those paintings: one depicting the lighthouse at Vigie, the other a man with an Afro.
“The paintings seemed so real and that sort of encouraged me to begin drawing,” Butte said. “So when I was about six or seven years old, my parents bought me a sketch pad while I was at St. Aloysius Boys Infant School. That sketch pad didn’t even last me a month because I just kept drawing.”
Butte started drawing professionally after graduating from Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC) where he did Literature and Industrial Arts. He said he had always had a knack for being creative with art.
“I’ve always liked scenes of people walking or anything that has to do with nature. So art has always been part of me and I always try to express such sentiments through my work,” the young artist explained.
In the late 1990s, just around the time he graduated from SALCC, he couldn’t find any avenue where he could nurture and be paid for his talents. He soon found a job at a local pasta-making factory. The heavy demands of that 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. job left Butte with almost no time to concentrate on his goal of following his artistic dreams. After eight months there, he quit and went back to drawing.
“I would often go to the beach and get pieces of driftwood on which I would draw various designs,” the Bishop’s Gap, Castries resident said. “I found that each piece of driftwood represented shapes of nature itself, shapes that were quite interesting to the eye. I soon started drawing faces on the driftwood, later sculpting faces into it. That’s how the whole concept of the mask came about.”
Butte also specializes in sketching on water colour paper which, he said, was an exploration into pushing the artistic envelope. Feeling the need to express the deeper meaning to his work, Butte soon took the enthusiasm he had for drawing and applied it to painting. His first painting, done in 1999, still hangs in his mother’s home. He also began painting many pieces, focusing heavily on realism.
Feeling impressed with the quality of his work at the time, he took a few of his pieces to legendary painter, Sir Dunstan St. Omer, seeking advice. The advice was blunt: very good work that needs some improvement in texture and outlines. Butte took the advice in good stead and brushed up on his talents.
Soon Butte was engaged in set designs for some of the best theatrical productions staged here, including “She Stoops To Conquer” and “Hewanorra Story”. His work has also been featured at the Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival. He has also worked with Nobel Prize-winning poet, Derek Walcott, as set manager and offering artistic assistance on Walcott’s play, “Ti Jean and His Brothers” for three years. Butte said creating for such major events served as a basis for increasingly creating exceptional work. But it was The Factory Theatre run by poet/writer Adrian Augier back then that gave Butte the springboard to hone his craft.
“The Factory Theatre gave me a lot of insight into my painting. By getting involved in designing sets for those theatrical productions, I felt like I could apply that experience into something that I already had, which was painting. During that period I was still trying to find my niche that would define me as an artist,” Butte said.
Butte’s painting prowess began to take a new course. His choice of colours was more carefully scrutinized. He also attended training workshops which boosted both his confidence and his level of work. Butte was progressing so artistically that the time had come for him to showcase to a larger audience what he had been doing quietly and earnestly. He held his first exhibition at Alliance Francaise in 2001where he featured hand-painted bottles. It was a hit.
“The hand-painted bottles sold so quickly, which prompted me to begin painting on canvas. The first painting I did on canvas depicted three masks that I named ‘Royalty’. Even though I had stated work on it years before, that exhibition made me revisit many unfinished projects I had started,” Butte explained.
In 2003, Butte won a Best Creative Design Award at the M&C Fine Arts. He has also represented Saint Lucia at CARIFESTA on four occasions (twice in Suriname, and one occasion each in Trinidad and Tobago and Saint Kitts/Nevis). He has also participated in exhibitions overseas, including in Martinique and England.
While he continues to hone his craft, Butte is also lending his hand and time to ensure that others find their true potential. For some years now, he’s been a facilitator for the national lantern festival. The job finds him visiting various schools on the island and teaching students how to create national, traditional and original lanterns. He’s also worked with the National Community Foundation (NCF) on that organizations’ Arts Initiative which engaged youth at risk in Faux-a-Chaud in music, dance and visual arts.
His obvious talents have also caught the eye of acclaimed poet/historian John Robert Lee, who has written a collection of poems entitled “After Gary Butte”. Lee’s seven poems illustrate seven of Butte’s “Mask Parade” paintings. Butte said the idea for the poetry collection sprang from Barbadian poet KamauBrathwaite – having been introduced to Butte by Lee – acknowledging the nexus between Brathwaite’s poems and Butte’s paintings.
Butte’s work has also been picked up by the University of Nebraska’s art magazine, “Prairie Schooner”, which will be using his painting for its magazine cover. He’s also expected to be featured in “Caribbean Beat”, a bi-monthly magazine published in Trinidad that covers the Caribbean’s arts, culture and society.
“So a lot of things are happening with the paintings. I think these paintings take on a life of their own and people appreciate them. I think they are a different style of painting that stands apart from the normal convention of Saint Lucian paintings. I think that is what gives my paintings a different dimension. They are abstract and are related to my ancestral roots and spiritual background,” Butte said.
Butte is currently the featured artist in this year’s National Arts Festival hosted by the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF). His ten paintings now on display at the Blue Coral Mall is a preview of an upcoming collection which, he says, is a continuation of his “Mask Parade” series. That exhibition runs until April 4. The artist is now planning another exhibition for this summer to be held at Alliance Francaise. A subsequent exhibition in England is also in the works.
Through painting, Butte has demonstrated that sometimes the best way to chart one’s future is by painting it. Not only do his artistic techniques continue to grow but his outlook on how an art form can change one’s life and understanding of the world.
“I have lived my entire life as an artist,” Butte said. “Art has really shaped my life and influenced my way of thinking. It has helped me to be better focused, disciplined and has opened me up to understanding more about life. I have always used art as a tool to help me understand where I am in the world.”
While he cannot pin down what his next painting will look like, Butte has already pinned his hopes on doing what he has loved best since his parents bought him his first sketch pad. It turns out that that sketch pad and their support for his budding talents have transformed him into an artist who’s dedicated to transforming our lives through his work.
“I think I will die being an artist,” Butte said. “I know that it’s a challenge being an artist; that the road is not an easy one. But there are benefits if you continue to be consistent in being better. It’s not about focusing on being an artist in your country but rather being an artist who wants to share a message with the world.”